Inspiration is a fickle thing. For some, stories pile out of their heads like ants fleeing an anthill. For others it’s a process of discovery in trial and error. There is no one right way to get inspiration for a story as inspiration can come from anywhere, be it a random conversation with a friend or watching a movie and wondering what might have happened if they’d gone in a different direction—even random dreams can be inspiration.
But if you still feel uninspired, let’s go through a few things that may help you pull out a story.
RETOLD PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Do you have a favorite experience you love to share with others? Has something crazy ever happened to you? Had any close calls or embarrassing moments? I don’t necessarily recommend retelling your own life story for a novel, but it’s a great place to start writing. Start with a shorter story, or even an outline, noting all the events that occurred in your experience. Then try several things to shake it up:
- Write it as it happened. If this is your very first story you’ve ever seriously written, I think it’s good experience to simply record what happened, just to get it out.
- Write it from the imagined perspective of a participant. Was a friend or family member with you when it happened. Imagine how they’d tell the story and write it like that.
- Throw in a made up event. You already know what happens. Now pretend we’re in a parallel universe where the other you nearly got run down by a car, or lost your wallet, or suddenly got pursued by zombie ninja fairies. Put something in your story that delays you from getting to the conclusion and even takes it in a completely different direction. Let it go where it takes you and see if you come up with an idea for another story not starring you.
Go to the park, sit on a train, walk around a mall—just go somewhere with lots of people. Watch people as they pass by or listen to the way they talk to their friends. (NOTE: This does not mean under any circumstances that you can stalk them, unless you like spending nights in jail. You’re only observing a few seconds of their lives as they come in and out of view for inspiration.)
Perhaps you see a woman in a business suit walking by, coffee in one hand, phone against her ear as she carries a briefcase in her other hand. Make up a name for her. What does she do? Is she on time or late? Does she have pets? Is she a secret government agent? Does she hope her date goes well tonight? Is she an alien in disguise? If you have a favorite genre picked out, look at this imaginary character you’re creating from that perspective.
Imagine where she’s come from and where she’s going next, then write about one or the other—or both. Take some time to consider the following:
- What’s this character’s back story? Make up what happened to this character over the course of their whole life. Where did she grow up? Did she go to College? Is this her dream job? What’s her favorite color? You can make it long or short, but write up at least a one-page bio of their life up the the point the story starts.
- What problems does this character face? All story needs conflict or it’s boring. What’s the conflict, or problem, your character character? Is she on the brink of losing her job? Is she being chased by the Russians? Is her mother dying of cancer? Based on the back story you’ve given her, write down at least 5 possible conflicts for your character to encounter.
- Pick a problem and run with it. Now that you have a back story and a character, select the problem you find the most interesting and make your character have to overcome it.
Some will scoff at the idea of using dreams for fuel. Dreams are often unreliable and generally don’t make sense. But you can still gleam gems from them because they encompass the prior two categories. You were personally there and you’ve observed only a glimpse of something that’s happened.
Were zombie ninja fairies chasing you through a pudding pop factory? Why were the ZNFs chasing you and what would make you enter a pudding pop factory? What kind of person would be chased by ZNFs? What kind of person would enter a pudding pop factory?
You can even strip it to its core and gleam inspiration from that even. Someone is chasing someone else. Why? Who is doing the chasing and why is the person running being chased?
Maybe you dreamed you fell out of an airplane without a parachute (you poor thing, why so many nightmares?). Why would someone leave an airplane without a parachute? What happened in the airplane before?
It can even be simple. You dreamed you’re trying to water the garden but you can’t find the hose. Why is that? Who would take the hose? Is it that pesky Johnson kid down the street? Did your wife take all your gardening supplies in the divorce just to get at you?
I hope you’re beginning to see how you can take simple, small pieces and turn them into inspiration for creating story.
CREATIVE WATER FROM MANY WELLS
You can find ideas for stories in everything. If you had a bad day, how would it have gone if it went right? Or the reverse, how could a good day have gone wrong?
I challenge you right now to open a Word document, keep a notebook, file scribbles in a box—but when you gain inspiration for stories, even if it’s not the one you’re currently working on, record it somewhere. In doing so you’re training your brain how to create stories and how to gain inspiration.
And trust me, you’re going to need this skill later when you’re struggling on how to connect plot points and rewrite scenes that aren’t working.
You’re going to find a story to write. As my mother always used to say to me: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed, but our power to do so is increased.”
You’ll train yourself how to create and those things you once thought hard will come to you with easier with time, experience, and good old-fashioned hard work.
Tomorrow, join me for Creating Characters.